A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley
One part F. Scott Fitzgerald, one part Charles Bukowski, and two parts drunken fan babbling next to you in the sports bar, A Fan’s Notes is the Great American Sports Novel and may just be the Great American Novel, period. This highly autobiographical debut recounts Frederick Exley’s struggles with alcoholism, father issues, and a severe case of writer’s block. The only thing that gives his life meaning is the New York Giants and their star halfback, Frank Gifford. Any sports fan will recognize the agony and ecstasy of fandom in Exley’s moving and hilarious tale. Without the mawkish and cloying ploys of contemporary addiction memoirs, A Fan’s Notes manages to be uplifting because the very book in your hand is proof that Exley ultimately succeeds.
Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback by George Plimpton
George Plimpton lived a pretty interesting life. He was the first editor-in-chief of The Paris Review, appointed Deputy Ambassador to the UN by JFK, and hobnobbed with innumerable artists and celebrities. But for sports fans, the coolest thing Plimpton ever did was convince professional sports teams to let him personally test how an “average person” would fare against the pros. In the process, he helped to create the New Journalism of the 1960s. Plimpton first convinced Major League Baseball to let him to pitch during an All-Star exhibition. However, Plimpton’s best coup came when he sneaked into the 1963 Detroit Lions training camp as a third string quarterback. Spoiler alert: Plimpton lost yardage on every play and became a laughingstock to the players and crowd suggesting that the average fan might be better off watching from the couch. (Of course, with the recent state of the Detroit Lions, who knows?) The resulting book is a must for any football fan who has dreamed of playing on the same field as their heroes.
The Blind Sideby Michael Lewis
Before it was an Academy Award Nominated motion picture — featuring the most insufferable accent Sandra Bullock could muster — The Blind Side was a fascinating study of football strategy study coupled with a biography of Baltimore Ravens left tackle Michael Oher. As in his acclaimed Moneyball, Lewis digs into the hidden science of sports tactics and distills the details in engaging and readable prose. Unlike the film, Michael Lewis’s book will actually teach you something about the gridiron game.
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger
NBC’s excellent fictional drama takes its name and inspiration from this non-fiction account of the Permian High School Panthers’ 1988 season. Like the award-winning TV series, the book is about much more than just the game on the field. It has to be, because football is life in the small town of Odessa, Texas. The book examines the lives of players, families, and townsfolk, but does not shy away from the dark side of high school sports obsession. Players are given free reign, grades are fudged, rules are flaunted, and titles are eventually stripped. The toxic atmosphere even leads some ego-stroked players from rival Dallas Carter to commit a string of robberies, thinking they can get away with anything. An unflinching and fascinating look at what happens when football fever becomes chronic.
End Zone by Don DeLillo
When Don DeLillo does football you know it is going to be a little off-kilter. In DeLillo’s 1972 sophomore novel, Texas high school football is the staging ground for a comic farce about life, love, and nuclear war. Don’t worry about DeLillo taking the Cold War metaphor too far though. As his Professor Zapalac says: “I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing.”
About Three Bricks Shy by Roy Blount Jr.
Like Friday Night Lights, this work of non-fiction follows a promising football team in a close-but-no-cigar championship campaign. This time Roy Blount Jr. spends a year with a professional team: the 1973 Pittsburgh Steelers. Blount is best known as a humorist and About Three Bricks Shy is a funny and unique account of the team that would go on to dominate the NFL for the rest of the decade.
Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard
That is our six point guide to football books, but for an extra point check out the short story “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak” from Jim Shepard’s collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway. Shepard has a unique ability to inhabit the voices of characters as disparate as Nazi Yeti hunters and a lonely female cosmonaut. But his take on two troubled football players, who channel their teenage pain into opponent’s broken bones, is perhaps his best in this eclectic collection.
There are other good football books out there, but these are a great place to start. Get reading and get ready for tonight’s kickoff.